Cultural Identity Through Folklore and Fairytales

I do intend to return to The Next Disney Movie That Will Never Be series (which technically, I suppose, is not yet a series as there is only one entry), but I've just recently begun working toward my master's degree in museum studies and some class discussions led to me scribbling notes on this subject in my notebook.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl 1823

I use the term 'fairytale' most often, for the simple reason that I like the look and sound of it, but a lot of what we call 'fairytales' are more accurately called 'folklore.' Tales collected by the Grimms from middle and lower class German women were, very literally, tales of the German folk. The Grimms' stated purpose was to collect the stories of the German people in an effort to preserve German cultural heritage. That said, we know the Grimms made extensive changes to the stories, both before and after they were initially published. We call them the Grimms' tales rather than simply referring to them as German folklore because they are what the Grimms made of them; their edits tell us more about the Grimms than they do of the German people.

Charles Perrault told many of the same stories as the Grimms in different dressing - which, to be fair, is the history of folklore from the very beginning. Perrault's situation was very different; he was writing for the aristocracy, for the court of Lous XIV, and was part of a group of writers who all put their own individual touches on similar stories. Thus Perrault's work is equally a reflection of the social mores of the French court and of his own personal views.

Inevitably, we learn as much about the author or editor of a specific set of tales as we do of a society. The Grimms' initial publication in 1812 gives us a brave, defiant, self-possessed Rapunzel who by 1819 was edited into a witless child. The flip would seem to indicate the German housewives and servants who told the Grimms these stories were more interested in strong heroines than the Grimm brothers were. Perrault certainly had an abhorrence of strong heroines and very literally laid out in the morals accompanying his tales what his expectations of women were, but his female contemporaries (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) wrote much more interesting women. Though Perrault's expectations of women's behaviour were likely the prevailing ones, it tells us more about him than of the French people, and certainly nothing of lower-class French people.

That is not to say we learn nothing of the cultural identity of a people from their folktales. Every time one of these stories is told, it is changed by the person telling it, but some change more than others. If we compare the English Cinderella, "Cap o' Rushes" to the German "Aschenputtel," the main difference is that there is no godmother figure to help Cap o' Rushes; she relies not on the magical or fantastical but her own patience, steadfastness, and wit, and that certainly tells us something about both the English and the German people. Perrault's "Cendrillon" emphasises the heroine's gentle nature, her willingness to endure quietly, and that her eventual reward comes from behaving properly and being gracious even to those who did not deserve it; contrast that with the Grimms' "Aschenputtel" ending in the bloody dismemberment and blinding of the step-sisters.

Knowing that folklore and fairytales are heavily characterised by the person telling them, we still associate the stories with the culture of the person telling them, which brings us to the question: what do we learn about cultural identity through folklore? And what part does folklore play in shaping cultural identity?

Perrault does make it ridiculously easy to tell what he means through his morals at the end of each of his tales. At the end of "La Belle au Bois Dormant," he writes: "A brave, rich, handsome husband is a prize well worth waiting for; but no modern woman would think it was worth waiting for a hundred years. The tale of the Sleeping Beauty shows how long engagements make for happy marriages, but young girls these days want so much to be married I do not have the heart to press the moral." Clearly French women were getting a bit fast for Perrault's personal taste, but in any case it's an interesting reflection on the changing priorities of society, or at least young French women. As with most fairy tales, there is no shortage of modern re-tellings, but what appears to be the most common theme in all of them is that a woman re-awakens the princess, whether it be a lover, friend, or family member. Marriage is either a footnote or completely irrelevant. Perrault would have a heart attack.

Taking a step back, the folklore itself as a whole is a component of cultural identity. I remember listening to an audiobook of Norwegian folktales when I was younger, and I didn't take so much from the themes of the stories as much as I felt happy about the stories being mine, from the country my ancestors came from, that they were mine. It's why there's backlash when a story that's important to a specific people is adapted for a movie for a wider audience; it's why the backlash against Disney's proposed live-action Mulan that changes the priority and lessons from the story is so strong. "The Ballad of Mulan" is extremely important to the Chinese people, for reasons I will direct you to them to for explanation: here and here. Removing a story from its cultural backdrop always runs the risk of missing the point entirely, but especially when it is removed by people from another culture, it feels like a personal attack, because it is. It is a personal attack on a part of that people's identity. Their stories belong to them.

This will, of course, vary from story to story and from storyteller to storyteller, but folklore and fairytales give us insight not only to the cultural values and social mores of a people but also of the personal values and mores of the person telling them. These stories have existed for hundreds if not thousands of years, but they still feel intensely personal on different levels to different individuals. They explain where we come from, become the vehicle by which we pass on our cultural and personal identities to future generations, and how we tell others in the present about ourselves and what we value, and what we want out of the world.


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